How Trolls Poison Political Discussions for Everyone Else
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Politics & Elections Mar 1, 2024

How Trolls Poison Political Discussions for Everyone Else

Online political debate isn’t inherently toxic, a new study of Reddit commenters finds. Instead, it becomes toxic because of the kind of commenters who opt in.

online users reading extreme content in vortex

Michael Meier

Based on the research of

Michalis Mamakos

Eli J. Finkel

Summary Why do political discussions online become so vicious? Previous research suggests that differences in ideology or identity may explain the problem. But a new study finds that people who comment in partisan forums are simply the most uncivil, regardless of discussion topic. This finding suggests that political conversations aren’t doomed to become toxic; rather, the problem is that people with rude behavior are more likely to opt into them.

Labeling online political discourse as “toxic” is no longer the arresting declaration it once was. Sometime before the last presidential election in the U.S.—perhaps when “toxic” was chosen as Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year at the end of 2018—it started to seem almost inevitable that discussions of politics would be described as poisonous.

We think we know why politics gets us so riled up, too.

“It’s usually said that political discourse is uncivil because there are differences either in ideology or in identity. So, if your political group is attacked, you will react,” says Michalis Mamakos, a Northwestern postdoctoral scholar.

But a new study finds that our collective thinking on toxic political discourse is overlooking something important—that some people make toxic comments regardless of the topic. That is, trolls are going to troll, no matter what they are discussing.

In this study, Mamakos teamed up with Eli Finkel, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, to analyze commenting patterns across diverse topics on Reddit, a popular online discussion forum.

“Prevailing theories for explaining the toxicity of political discourse focus either on substantive disagreement—over abortion, for example—or on the competing social identities of Democrat and Republican,” observes Finkel. “But neither of those theories has anything to say about whether partisans should be especially toxic when politics are irrelevant—when talking about movies or gardening or whatever. Our findings suggest that a major reason why our political discourse is toxic is that toxic people are especially likely to opt in.”

The researchers see the finding as a hopeful one, as it suggests that political discussions aren’t doomed to turn noxious in a way that other discussions aren’t. Rather, they are noxious in part because they have been dominated by a few loud, rude voices.

“The toxicity we observe in online political contexts is an overrepresentation of the people who choose to opt into them,” Mamakos says. “And these people push out the more agreeable people who don’t want to engage with this kind of conflict. This overrepresentation provides a misleading image of the severity of the divide.”

Generalized and specialized toxicity

Reddit stands out as an ideal platform on which to study online discussions, the researchers say. Not only is it more popular in the U.S. than both Facebook and X, but it’s also less dependent on algorithms to artificially curate what users see.

Reddit’s individual subject-specific forums, called “subreddits,” are user-created and cover a broad range of topics. Mamakos and Finkel exploited the fact that some of these subreddits are more concentrated than others in terms of their users’ political affiliation. While some subreddits have obvious political affiliations—like r/hillaryclinton or r/The_Donald—others do not but are still largely populated by Redditors who tend to engage in left-wing or right-wing political contexts (for example, r/librarians skewed liberal in its userbase, and r/wrestling skewed conservative).

For the purposes of their research, Mamakos and Finkel referred to any of these highly segregated subreddits as “partisan”—whether or not they were explicitly political. Subreddits that did not skew either liberal or conservative, such as r/movies and r/programming, were considered nonpartisan.

First, the researchers set out to determine whether more-partisan subreddits were more toxic than less-partisan ones. To do this, they analyzed commenting across 9,000 distinct subreddits over a period spanning from 2011 to 2022, and measured toxicity using Google’s PerspectiveAPI classifier, which uses AI to assess the probability that a comment is “rude, disrespectful, or unreasonable and is likely to make someone leave a discussion.”

“Our findings suggest that a major reason why our political discourse is toxic is that toxic people are especially likely to opt in.”

Eli Finkel

As expected, the more-partisan subreddits are also the more-toxic ones. But are the Redditors commenting in these partisan hangouts bringing a similar level of incivility to less-partisan places? That is, were these toxic commenters specialists (targeting only political discourse) or generalists (equal-opportunity offenders)?

The researchers’ analysis suggests that they are the latter. Mamakos and Finkel’s second step was to analyze the hundreds of millions of comments produced by roughly 6.3 million Redditors over the same 11-year period. They found that users whose behavior is especially toxic in partisan contexts remains that way in nonpartisan contexts. What’s more, in nonpartisan subreddits specifically, the discourse of people who comment in partisan contexts at all is ruder and more uncivil than that of people who don’t engage in those spaces.

And the rudest of the rude? Those who comment in both liberal and conservative subreddits.

This suggests that the concern that toxicity arises from partisan echo chambers may be misplaced. Toxic comments in the nonpartisan subreddits were more prevalent among people who commented in both left-wing and right-wing subreddits than among those who commented in only one or the other. (Comments from these liberal and conservative partisans were, interestingly enough, nearly equally toxic).

The researchers ruled out the possibility that Redditors were learning their bad behavior in the partisan arenas before taking it elsewhere. They conducted a longitudinal analysis of users who spent time in more partisan subreddits to analyze whether their comments in nonpartisan subreddits became less civil as a function of their time spent among the partisan Redditors. The researchers concluded that this type of socialization played no role at all.

Disengaging

Mamakos finds limitations in the incentives of social-media platforms to take steps toward limiting the activity of especially loud and rude users. After all, polarization and combativeness on these sites whip up the engagement that drives their profits.

Instead, the best way to diffuse toxicity online may be for each of us, as individuals, to resist letting rudeness define the terms of engagement. In other words, don’t feed the trolls.

“It’s normal to find it gratifying when people on our side are toxic toward people on the other side,” says Finkel. “But when both sides amplify such content, the informational ecosystem turns dark, leaving us with the false impression that opposing partisans are demons. In a climate like that, we’re at risk for prioritizing partisan victory over democratic fair-play.”

“The point is not to avoid conflict altogether; we can argue, we can disagree,” says Mamakos. “This is all part of democratic discourse. The point is to approach discussions with the other side with an open mind and empathy.”

Featured Faculty

Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Katie Gilbert is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.

About the Research

Mamakos, Michalis, and Eli J. Finkel. 2023. “The Social Media Discourse of Engaged Partisans Is Toxic Even When Politics Are Irrelevant.” PNAS Nexus.

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